17 May 2017

The New Zealand Medical Association today releases a policy briefing on Improving Health Literacy that seeks to promote a shared understanding of what health literacy means, why it is important, and what can be done to improve it.

“It is imperative that we speak a language that can be understood, and that we listen to ensure our message is heard—at systems levels, in hospitals/practices, marketing, education programmes, and in every single patient contact,” says NZMA Chair Dr Stephen Child.

“This is relevant for all healthcare professionals, healthcare managers, as well as policy and decision makers across multiple sectors. It highlights the need for doctors and patients to share decision making, which requires clear communication at all levels.”

Health literacy is important. Lower levels of health literacy are associated with:

  • increased rates of hospitalisation and greater use of emergency care
  • poorer ability to take medications properly and to interpret labels
  • poorer overall health status and a higher risk of death among older people.

Poor health literacy is a particular issue for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups as it can exacerbate underlying health access and equity issues.

“Improving health literacy is not just about individuals; it needs system changes,” says Dr Child. “We want to build the capacity of people to make effective decisions and take appropriate action for their own healthcare; we also need to improve the capacity of the health system to support this and allow it to happen.

“We want this to be a useful, thought-provoking document, and have made a number of recommendations to that end.”

Susan Reid, Director of Health Literacy NZ, says Improving Health Literacy is comprehensive in terms of its recommendations, covering each of the four groups represented in New Zealand's Framework for Health Literacy: the health system, health organisations, health workforce and individuals. “The Policy Briefing reflects both the history of health literacy, its emergent nature in New Zealand and the urgency to address health literacy,” she says.

“At Health Literacy NZ, we are privileged in that we often get to sit in and observe consultations between health professionals, patients and families. We know that health professionals are highly motivated to provide the best care they can and we see the significant difference made by using health literacy approaches, as recommended in this policy briefing.”